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Jail Fallout Looms Large For Jackson County Executive Hopefuls

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3

Tuesday’s Democratic primary for Jackson County Executive pits incumbent Frank White against two challengers: Matthew Merryman and Jeremy Raines, both of Kansas City.

The next county executive will inherit a slew of issues that have roiled White’s tenure, which started when he was appointed in 2016. The main issue has been the overcrowded, aging Jackson County Detention Center.

Though the problems at the jail are not limited to White’s term, he has faced criticism for not properly addressing the issues — allegations of rape and sexual assault, inmate deaths and bribery schemes.

White appointed a jail task force in November to address the issues, but shortly thereafter, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker refused her seat, urging that action be taken immediately.

A scathing 71-page grand jury report released in May suggests White's task force duplicated one appointed by his predecessor in 2015. A previous task force called for a new jail, but White decided to solicit input from citizens first. His office also said the May report was political finger-pointing.

Baker wants county legislators to move the jail’s administration — which she called “one of the most serious problems facing” the county — from the executive’s to the sheriff’s office.

Since the May report, the jail chose a new health care provider that has been sued in federal court more than 100 times in the past decade.

Another issue on the executive’s list is millions in legal fees that the county has accumulated since January 2015 due to the jail.

“As a former public defender who still does work for people that can’t afford attorneys, I see the jail crisis, and it was troubling to see that there was no action being taken,” Merryman told KCUR’s Steve Kraske on a recent episode of Up to Date. “We go from one study to the next and nobody’s proposing any solutions or answers. That’s why I got into this race.”

Jackson County Executive Frank White stands at a podium with the Jackson County seal on the wall behind him and to the right and an unidentified woman to the left.
Credit KCUR 89.3 file photo
KCUR 89.3 file photo
Jackson County Executive Frank White.

White declined invitations to go on Up To Date and participate in a forum hosted by KCUR and the League of Women Voters in July. In a written statement to KCUR from his spokesperson Marshanna Hester, White expressed thanks for the support he’s received.

“Everything we value in life begins and ends with people. I have spent a lot of time meeting with them, talking with them, and most importantly, listening to them,” the statement said Friday. “I accepted this role to do what is right, not play politics, and citizens appreciate that. I am grateful for all of the support I have received and want to continue serving the hard-working citizens of Jackson County.”

As of Monday, White had outpaced his opponents in fundraising, bringing in about $61,000. Merryman, had about $12,000. Raines does not appear to be actively campaigning, nor does he appear to have raised money.

With no Republican candidate, the winner of the Democratic primary will take on the winner of the Green Party primary — either Nathan Kline, or Richard Tolbert, who is not an official party member — in November’s general election.

This post has been updated to clarify Richard Tolbert's political affiliation.

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email her at andreat@kcur.org, and follow her on Twitter @_tudhope.

Andrea Tudhope is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is currently coordinating producer for America Amplified, a national public media community engagement initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
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